Recognizing Hermes

 

Until recently my understanding of the disagreement between Mormons and Evangelicals was the ‘faith versus works’ debate. Is salvation earned through good works or through faith? But I’ve always understood this to mean that the goal was the same. The real problem didn’t become clear to me until I began to wonder about the prototype of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call.  Joseph Smith seems irrelevant in the Christian scheme of things, unlike John the Baptist whose prophetic call is important to Christianity. A prophet was expected in his time.

“In the view of many Jews prophecy had ceased after the Persian period but in the intertestamental period there was an expectation of one prophet who would come with the arrival of the new age; cf. I Macc 4:45-46, Testament of Benjamin 9:2. Some identified this prophet with Elijah or Moses. The identification with Elijah is found in Mal 3:23-24 (4:5-6), which speak of Elijah coming before the Day of the Lord. Mal 3:1-4 may refer to the same person, namely, “the messenger of the covenant.” He will purify the temple and its cult before the Lord comes in judgment…

“Some identified Jesus with Elijah (Mark 6:15, 8:28, Matt 16:14, Luke 9:8, 19” but Jesus Himself pronounced him to be the Baptist (Matt 11:13-15, AB):

For all the prophets and the Law up to John, prophesied. If you wish to accept it, he is the expected Elijah. Let him who has understanding listen.”

Massyngberde Ford goes on to compare Matt 11:15 with the endings of the prophecies to the seven churches and refers to similar sentiments also identifying the Baptist with Elijah expressed in Mark 9:11, Matt 17:10-13. [1]

The official history for Joseph Smith says the Baptist ordained Smith to the lesser, or Aaronic priesthood, and the apostles Peter, James and John ordained him to the higher priesthood after the ancient order of Melchizedek. Elijah, Moses, and Christ all appeared to him.  Then are we to assume that Joseph Smith belongs to that tradition? If so, what would that mean for Christianity? If not, is there another tradition that pointed to a new prophet? There is another side to Smith’s story.

Some have called Mormonism ‘the American religion’.  According to Harold Bloom’s book, The American Religion, it is a kind of Gnosticism, and the first hero of Bloom’s story is Joseph Smith. This side of Smith’s history emerged in the early 1980s. He and his early followers had multiple involvements with magic, irregular Freemasonry, and traditions generally termed occult.

“…a unifying pattern was discerned within the unusual array of historical information outlined above. Joseph Smith’s quest for a sacred golden treasure buried in dark earth, his involvement with ceremonial magic, the angelic visitations, the pseudephigraphic texts he ‘translated’, his declaration of Masonry as a remnant of priesthood, and his restoration of a Temple with its central mystery of a sacred wedding – all could be fitted into one very recently recognized context: Hermeticism.” [2]

I’ve been aware of this article for several months but it didn’t come together for me until I tried to understand Smith’s prophetic call in a Christian context. Joseph Smith would not be necessary to a Christian religion, but he is necessary for the kind of religion that Mormonism is. It’s not a question of whether faith or works will lead to salvation. The entire goal is different.

For years I’ve been haunted by the idea that Jesus Christ can sometimes be identified with Hermes. This would mean that anyone could be influenced by Hermetic ideas without knowing it. I wish I could say I was wrong about this but the United States is saturated with Hermeticism. However because Mormonism is distinct from Christianity the characteristics of the Mormon priesthood can’t be attributed to the Christian priesthood.

[1] The Anchor Bible: Revelation, Introduction, Translation and Commentary by J. Massyngberde Ford. Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1975

[2] Lance S. Owens, Joseph Smith: America’s Hermetic Prophet. Gnosis.org

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